July 20, 2022
THE FEEDBACK LOOP
By Morgan Evans
Your behavior on the court is a complex system of play, measurement, comparison, correction and, once again, play. This process is called the feedback loop and it’s the invisible influence behind all your daily activities.
Let me give you a basic example we all deal with when driving—speed cameras. A speed camera is a remarkably effective balancing feedback loop. When you are driving too fast, the digital radar alerts you that your speed is excessive, you correct your speed and continue driving at the safe legal limit.
So how does this relate to pickleball? I want you to isolate which part of the feedback loop is deficient so you can close the loop and keep growing as a player.
The pickleball feedback loop looks like this:
PLAY → MEASURE → COMPARE → CORRECT → PLAY
Let’s look at each individual part and how it should work toward your development.
This is the simple part—it’s the output that will eventually also become input to the next loop. The play I refer to is both macro and micro, an entire tournament and a single shot. I want to discuss tournament play today, and recreational play will be used as a tool in the correction phase of the loop. If you have yet to play a tournament, don’t worry—the exact same principles apply to you.
Measurement of your performance is the first hurdle you need to get over. First, in the macro sense, you can start by simply looking at your results. Most people stop here, especially if the score is positive. But whether you win or lose, this phase is critical. Referring to the digital radar example, the feedback loop wouldn’t work without the numbers indicating you’re going 15 mph over the limit. After your games, how are you measuring what won or lost you the match?
Here’s an easy method that can help you… Buy a box of foam earplugs and cut five of them in half. Put 10 full-size and 10 half-size bits in your right pocket. If you hit a successful drop, i.e., not attackable, take a full plug from your right pocket and put it into your left pocket. If your drop isn’t effective, however, take a half-size plug and put it in your left pocket. After a game, you’ll now have an accurate measurement of two important metrics: how many drops you attempted, and how many were effective. This is obviously just one shot you can use with this system. But don’t attempt to do the pocket switch in the middle of the point! Make sure it’s before the next point starts. Measure quickly to inspire quick change.
The most effective and foolproof method of measurement is video analysis. Unfortunately, it’s not always feasible, and there’s rarely going to be enough time the day of play, so this method is somewhat limited to macro measurement after the tournament.
If you manage to record your matches, then focus on the basics. When you win points on serve, which shots did the most damage? When you lost points on a return, ask the same question. Paint a broad picture first and then narrow it down until you have a high-resolution image of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Armed with this, you’re ready to move on to the next phase.
A good measurement is only useful when you have something to compare it to. In the digital speed example, the comparison is the speed limit itself. In pickleball, you have various options, and you’ll have to decide just how thorough you want to be.
My work as a broadcast analyst for professional pickleball lets me see which players are making effective changes from tournament to tournament using the feedback loop, and which players are adept at also using the same loop in the micro sense. The best of the best never make the same mistake twice. They perform a shot, measure, compare, correct, and then perform more effectively. Therefore you see the best teams sometimes lose game 1, but rarely game 3.
How did your drop percentages fare in comparison with your opponent, or the gold medal winners? The third shot drop is a prime example because it’s one that often separates the best from the rest. However, perhaps your drops are fantastic, but your crosscourt backhand dinks are at fault. In this high-pressure situation, are you making a mistake or bailing out of the rally with a risky attack?
You can use the earplug method to help measure and compare this also. There are a lot of matches at a variety of levels free to watch on YouTube, so the only thing stopping you is your own commitment to improvement. I can’t help you if you have no idea what is really letting you down, through good measurement and appropriate comparison.
Correcting the mistakes you’ve made or reinforcing positive play is where the loop comes together or falls apart. Making a change doesn’t have to involve technique; it can simply be tactical, and I suggest when trying to improve your feedback loop within rallies, points, matches, and tournaments, you certainly shouldn’t be trying to make technical changes. Doing so will take away from valuable resources that should be used to make sound tactical decisions.
Technique changes should be reserved for a period that allows a process called myelination to take hold. This process is what makes you very proficient at repeating certain motor skills, like walking or running, and very poor at rhythmic gymnastics. This takes real time and commitment so please, whatever you do, don’t attempt to adjust your grip or swing mechanics in the middle of a tournament. You can, however, continue to remind yourself to get low—that just helps everything!
You’ve come full circle, congratulations! The culmination of your feedback loop is complete and you’re ready to put the lessons learned back into play. As mentioned before, this loop can occur over months after a tournament, half a day between weekend recreational play, or, in the case of the most accomplished players, in the brief moments between contact points in a rally.
I find that most players get stuck in a much smaller and significantly less effective loop of playing, comparing, and then playing again. Without accurate measurement, any comparison and subsequent correction are severely limited.
Now, you may think that professional players are adept at this but it’s not always the case. Many top players lean on natural physical skills and fall victim to the same traps that you might be, often as a result of pride disrupting how they measure and compare individual shots or patterns of play.
You don’t need to beat your opponents in every facet of the game to win the match. That’s the beauty of this game; there’s a lot of ways to win. I want you to ask yourself the tough question: Where are you falling short in the feedback loop? Like anything else, the feedback loop is a skill, and making it as tight and efficient as possible is how you can set yourself on the right path. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. •